Stephen Billing’s Blog

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Three Questions for Opening Up Possibility

Stephen Billing, May 21, 2009

How do you get away from the deficit way of thinking?

In my last post I suggested that the quest for the ideal future diverts people’s attention from what is going on around them in the present moment. Always paying attention to the deficit between where they are now and the ideal where they would like to be, they miss the possibilities of the present.

Again drawing on Patricia Benner’s The Primacy of Caring, here are three questions she suggests that can open up possibility:

  • "What can be done now, in the meantime (before the ideal can be realised)?"
     
  • "Is there another way to achive the same end?"
     
  • "Is the end in sight the most worthy?"

In looking for the possibility inherent in the current situation there is still the notion of desire or some good to be achieved.

Benner suggests that decreasing your reliance on a preconceived end or means of getting there can offer a new point of departure for new possibilities that were not previously available. To me, this applies as much to individuals in their personal lives as much as it does to people in organisations.

 

A Deficit View of the World

Stephen Billing, May 19, 2009

The gap analysis perspective can divert your attention from noticing what is going on around you at this very moment.

It is common for many people to see the world as an ideal contrasted with a reality. People are measured against an ideal standard and are diagnosed in relation to that standard. The gap analysis is the classic example – where do you want to be compared to where you are now. There is a deficit and the solution is to work out a plan to close the gap.

Patricia Benner in The Primacy of Caring points out that this orientation towards some future ideal state has some cost. The price people pay for having this mindset is that they become blinded to the possibilities in their current situation. Because their focus is on the future and the gap, it is not on what is going on around them at the present moment.

This reminds me of the acres of diamonds story – I think I heard it from Brian Tracy and it may well be apocryphal. It concerns a farmer who sold up his farm and went off to another country to hunt for diamonds. Years later, he died, penniless and alone. In the meantime, on his farm that he had sold years earlier, guess what they found? Some very very large diamonds.

I think that the focus on an ideal future and the deficit compared to the current state stops people in organisations from seeing the possibilities in what is going on around them. It stops them from seeing the acres of diamonds that are present right now.

In your organisation where are the areas in which you are talking about what should be in the future at the expense of noticing what is going on around you at this very moment?

 

New Responses to Resistance

Stephen Billing, January 25, 2009

Patricia Benner’s work challenges leaders of change to consider and generate new responses to employees’ reactions to change. This is more effective than the commonly utilised grief cycle approach.

This is the fifth in a series of posts about how to view your employees’ responses to change as other than ‘resistance.’ It is based on Patricia Benner’s work described in her book The Primacy of Caring which in turn is based on Heidegger’s phenomenological approach. Phenomenology means that people can grasp a situation directly in terms of its meaning for the self. 

People grasp change situations in terms of what those situations mean for them.

Previous posts have covered Benner’s four aspects of our humanness through which we deal with change situations and the associated growth and loss:

Benner’s contribution assists in redefining what is commonly known in managerial terms as resistance, or opposition to the change desired by management, an opposition that it is the leader’s job to overcome.

To me, Benner’s work challenges leaders of change to consider and generate new responses to the specific situation where the smooth operation of the participant’s background meaning, habitual bodily understanding and the individual’s concerns are breaking down.

This view is consistent with complex responsive process thinking which encourages paying attention to the micro-interaction of what is going on in the here and now.

John Shotter points out the importance of being open, of being willing to be struck by the novel moments in ordinary conversation. I think Benner’s suggestions help leaders to concentrate more on understanding the life situation of participants and to identify what is potentially new in a conversation.

This is a far cry from seeing employees as going through the stages of a grief cycle, and allows a far more personalised approach to situations of ‘resistance’ that might arise.

 

 

Changed Situation – Opportunity for Reflection, not Persuasion

Stephen Billing, January 23, 2009

 People constitute their world and are constituted by it at the same time. Changed situations lead to breakdown of smooth functioning for your employees. Better to see this as an opportunity for reflection rather than an opportunity to ‘persuade’ them.

This is the fourth in a series of posts about Patricia Benner’s work described in her book The Primacy of Caring on how people deal with growth and loss as they are lived or experienced.

Benner proposes that there are four aspects of our humanness that enable us to grasp situations directly in terms of their meaning for the self:

  • Embodied intelligence
  • Background meaning
  • Concern
  • Situation

Earlier posts discussed embodied intelligence, background meaning and concern.

Benner calls the fourth attribute ’situation’, which denotes that people inhabit their world, rather than living in an environment. What I mean is that people are constituted by, at the same time as they form, their world. Not only do we create our own world, but it simultaneously creates us. Benner says that this point is often missed because we are so ingrained in an individualist view of the world where we are seen as autonomous individuals, who create the world we live in through our words and actions. Interdependence with other people takes a back seat – more on this here.

Over time, external situations change, and in response the individual also changes. For example, marriage, divorce, widowhood, unemployment, promotion and retirement are all examples Benner gives of how real world situations or contexts change and can impact upon life experience.

No amount of rehearsal or reflection can prepare one for these events because people cannot, in advance, reflectively encounter every taken-for-granted aspect of their being.

However, these changed contexts represent breakdowns in smooth functioning, which can prompt reflection. We can become aware of previously unnoticed background meanings, habitual body understanding and concerns.

This breakdown in smooth functioning is experienced as stressful, as any person involved in organisational change can testify. In situations of change, people’s concerns change and the habitual bodily understandings may not seem to work any more. Taken-for-granted aspects of one’s being may no longer work smoothly. And yet often, leaders respond with ‘persuasive’ messages, rather than attempts to understand what it means for employees whose habitual smooth functioning is breaking down.

Considering this, along with history in the form of background meaning can offer you as the leader of change, the potential for new responses to your employees’ ‘resistance.’ Something more relevant to your employees than a persuasive message.

These new responses you make to your employees have far more potential to trigger the actual organisational change you desire, more than all the programmed key messages and persuasive messages your PR team could dream up.

 

Why People May React Strongly to Change

Stephen Billing, January 21, 2009

People understand the world in terms of their concerns. What threatens the concern threatens the person. Which is why people can react strongly to proposed change.

This is the third in a series of posts about Patricia Benner’s work described in her book The Primacy of Caring on how people deal with growth and loss as they are lived or experienced.

Benner proposes that humans grasp situations directly in terms of their meaning for the self. This ability to grasp the meaning of situations is made possible by four aspects of our humanness:

  • Embodied intelligence
  • Background meaning
  • Concern
  • Situation

Earlier posts discussed embodied intelligence and background meaning, which help life go smoothly without effortful conscious attending.

Embodied intelligence and background meaning explain how a person can be in the world.

Benner’s third attribute of concern explains why. We are involved in the world through a context, and things and people matter to us. Because they matter, we become very involved in the world. This concern accounts for why people do things, but is not about people being motivated by either internal needs fulfilment (e.g. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) or external prodding (carrot and stick) which are two common ways of seeing motivation.

Rather, through concern, each person is involved with the other and certain things matter more than others. In other words, some things have more meaning than others, and that meaning is given by one’s concerns.

Although concerns can change over time, rather than the person owning the concerns in a possession kind of way, the concerns are part of the person. In a sense they also define the person.

The person understands the world in the light of their concerns. This means that what threatens the concern threatens the person.

Benner prefers the term concerns rather than commitment because of the tendency to see commitment as a measurable scale from high to low. She prefers to use the term concern as a way of getting to the meaning of the concern in the person’s own terms. Instead of describing ‘commitment to the change’ or similar, which predetermines what the concern or commitment is, she suggests that we explore what the person is concerned about, in their own terms.

This is a helpful insight when it comes to thinking about resistance to change, and why people can sometimes react strongly to proposed change. Their concerns are part of their identity, and change that challenges people’s concerns is threatening to their identity.

This suggests that understanding the concerns of your people is important in change situations.

When expressed this way, it sounds like no more than a platitude. But this idea is different from listening to resistant employees with a view to working out how to change their minds, and the difference becomes clearer after considering the fourth of Benner’s attributes, which is the situation itself.

This is discussed in the next post.

 

For Leaders of Change: Benner’s Background Meaning

Stephen Billing, January 19, 2009

People respond to change in ways that reflect their background meaning, not through generic grief cycles

This is the second in a series of posts about Patricia Benner’s work described in her book The Primacy of Caring on how people deal with growth and loss as they are lived or experienced. Much of the literature on change management considers these in terms of a grief cycle, but I think Benner has a much more nuanced and useful way of considering the response of your employees to change.

Benner proposes that humans grasp a situation directly in terms of its meaning for themselves, as opposed to going through a standard grief cycle. And that the ability to grasp the meaning of situations is made possible by four aspects of our humanness:

  • Embodied intelligence
  • Background meaning
  • Concern
  • Situation

An earlier post discussed embodied intelligence.

The second of Benner’s attributes of humanness is that we develop background meaning, a determination of what is real for us individually.

Background meaning is formed through the person’s experience of the world, through early encounters with family and then through wider connections with the outside world.

These experiences form our understanding of what is real, what is right, what is true in the world. Being a shared, public understanding of what is, it determines what counts as ‘right’ for that person.

Background meaning is not a thing in itself, but is a way of understanding the world. It is like a light – you don’t see the light itself, but you see what it illuminates. In a similar way, the background meaning itself is invisible but it illuminates your world and determines what you see and what you don’t see.

Because we are embodied intelligences, we take in cultural background meanings from birth. For example Caudill and Weinstein1 found that Japanese babies and American babies became thoroughly Japanese or American by the ages of three or four months. The Japanese babies were physically passive and watchful of things and people around them. The American babies were physically active and constantly engaging vocally and physically with their mothers. The researchers attributed this to the culturally distinct interactive patterns of mother and child. The Japanese understand the newborn to be a separate, uncivilised being who needs to be brought into the family and made civilised. The Americans understand the baby to be a helpless dependent being who needs to be encouraged to be autonomous.

So, for an individual, background meaning is provided by the family, culture and sub-cultures to which that person belongs. It is taken up in individual ways in particular circumstances but always within the constraints of what is culturally acceptable.

The implication of this for you as a leader of change is that when you recognise that people will respond to change initiatives in accordance with their background meaning, you will be able to make sense of employees’ responses without being polarised into seeing these responses purely as ‘resistance.’

If you see employees as demonstrating ‘resistance’ then your only alternative is to try to deal with something opposing you – which leads only to attempts to either persuade (sell) or bypass those

If you consider the background meaning of your employees, it will allow you a wider range of ways of engaging with those employees rather than only as ‘resistant.’

Benner’s approach offers the option of exploring what the background meaning is that is leading the employees to have the response that looks like resistance.

The concept of background meaning may prompt you as a leader also to consider your own background meaning, and also what you know about the employees’ background meaning and how this might be influencing the ‘resistant’ response. Understanding the employees’ background meaning can help leaders to respond in ways that open up the possibility of change. The  alternative is to engage with employees as though they are resistant, and this leads to stand offs with little possibility of resolution.

1 Caudill W. and Weinstein H. 1969 Maternal Care and infant behaviour in Japan and America, Psychiatry, 32:12.

Benner’s approach is based on the phenomenologist philiosophy of Martin Heidegger.

 

How People Respond to Change (Not by Grief Cycle)

Stephen Billing, January 15, 2009

 

One of the most common ways that people are finding this site and blog is through my earlier posts on Patricia Benner’s work on 5 stages of skill acquisition and their implications for leadership (here).

Other work of Benner’s is relevant to leaders initiating change in their organisations. In The Primacy of Caring, she explores the practice of professionals dealing with health and illness, growth and loss, as they are lived or experienced.

Her findings have relevance for leaders of change because people going through change situations are also dealing with growth and loss.

While it is common to think of grief in terms of a grief cycle (e.g. Kubler-Ross), Benner’s explanation of humans as self-interpreting beings suggests that the responses of participants come from their understanding of the situation, and that they respond as the situation demands and as it unfolds in time. It is not purely about a process such as a grief cycle.

This understanding of situation is important. Benner argues that humans have the capacity to grasp a situation directly in terms of its meaning for the self (not necessarily going through a grief cycle), and this ability is made possible by four aspects of our humanness:

  • Embodied intelligence
  • Background meaning
  • Concern
  • Situation

Firstly, people have embodied intelligence. This means that we grasp a situation quickly in a non-reflective way, as in our ability to recognise faces and also perform familiar tasks such as driving on ‘auto-pilot’ without conscious attending. Our embodied intelligence is what enables a racing car driver to assess a situation and take action much more quickly than conscious reflection would allow.

Embodied intelligence can also be seen as skilled spontaneity. This is the faculty that is responsible for the experience of driving to work in the morning and not remembering familiar aspects of the journey, such as changing gear, or stopping for a particular traffic light.

Leaders and facilitators of change can develop skilful ‘spontaneous’ ways of dealing with certain types of group situations, and not be able to explain them, because the explaining is like asking a concert pianist to explain how their fingers move across the keys – one of the key attributes of embodied intelligence is that it breaks down under conscious reflection.

A concert pianist having to explain how they play the piano would likely be halting and hesitant in explaining it, and would certainly perform the piece relatively poorly if they had to think about each finger on each key rather than ‘going with the flow’.

This embodied intelligence works best when it is not noticed. For example, in tennis, I have experienced someone commenting to me that my serve is going well, only to find that this made me think about my serve with the consequence that it broke down completely.

Embodied intelligence can also be thought of as ‘unconscious competence.’

Itis difficult to articulate, and Benner suggests that this difficulty in articulation is one reason why embodied intelligence has been undervalued in western society, compared to rational thinking.

It could be helpful for leaders to consider that both the leader’s gesture and the employee’s ‘resistant’ response will have an element of embodied intelligence, some element of skilled spontaneity that is habitual and learnt, and is outside of the individual’s awareness. 

The next posts will discuss Benner’s ideas about background meaning, concern and situation.

 

Leading Anyone – From Novices to Experts – 5

Stephen Billing, September 14, 2008

How can you tell if a person in your team is an expert? And how should your leadership style change if you have an expert in your team? 

This is the final post in a series of five covering Dreyfus and Dreyfus’s stages of adult development that I came across in Patricia Benner’s book From Novice to Expert. The five stages are:

Expert

The expert performer no longer relies on an analytic principle or maxim to connect his or her understanding of the situation to an appropriate action. Experts have developed an intuitive grasp of each situation and are able to zero in accurately on the heart of the problem without wasteful consideration of alternative diagnoses and solutions.

Experts see what needs to be done and how to achieve the goal. They are able to make more subtle and refined discriminations than proficient performers. They are able to distinguish among many situations that would be seen as similar by the proficient performer.

Implications for Leaders: Don’t ask your expert performers to tell you or others the rules by which they work. They will tell you rules they hardly remember, because they do not follow rules any more. Instead, ask them to describe specific situations in which they had to exercise judgement. Ask them to describe what they did and why they chose that option and not a different one. Your proficient, competent and beginning performers will all benefit.

More in the next and final post of this series…

This series of posts draws heavily on Benner’s book

From Novice to Expert

and Drefus and Dreyfus’s article

From Socrates to Expert Systems

The implications for leadership are my own. What are your thoughts?

Benner P. 1984. From Novice to Expert, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

 

Leading Anyone – From Novices to Experts 4

Stephen Billing, September 13, 2008

After competence there is one more stage before a person achieves expert status. This is the stage of proficiency. How should your leadership style change to address this movement from competence to proficiency? 

This is the fourth post in a series of five covering Dreyfus and Dreyfus’s stages of adult development that I first came across in Patricia Benner’s book From Novice to Expert. The five stages are:

 

Proficient

A proficient performer sees the performance in terms of the whole, rather than the individual aspects of performance, and is guided by maxims. Proficient performers have a perspective based on experience and they see the meaning of the situation in terms of longer term goals.

They have learnt from experience what typical events to expect in a given situation and how plans need to be modified in response to these events. Being able to recognise whole situations, they can now see when the expected normal picture does not materialise. Decision making becomes less laboured because they can distinguish which aspects of the situation are important and which are less important. Proficient performers can therefore consider fewer options (the important ones) and home in accurately on the important aspects of the problem.

Maxims are useful to the proficient performer, as they reflect nuances of the situation, but these maxims would be unintelligible to the competent or novice performer because they can mean one thing in a certain situation and another in a different situation. Moving from competent to proficient performance means that intuitive behaviour must take the place of reasoned responses.

Compared to competent performers, proficient performers are much better and faster at diagnosing a situation. Then they must decide what action to take. For example, a competent relationship manager may know that a better relationship needs to be established with a key buyer in an at-risk account, but must calculate how to go about improving that relationship.

Implication for Leaders: For proficient performers, provide plenty of opportunities for them to reflect (with you as non-judgmental sounding board) on the positive and negative outcomes of their actions to reinforce the associations between situational discriminations and the associated responses. Help them to identify successful and unsuccessful responses. This reflection will accelerate the process of developing practised intuition to replace reasoned responses.

More in future posts…

This series of posts draws heavily on Benner’s book

From Novice to Expert

and Drefus and Drefus’s article

From Socrates to Expert Systems

The implications for leadership are my own. What are your thoughts?

Benner P. 1984. From Novice to Expert, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

 

Leading Anyone – From Novices to Experts 3

Stephen Billing, September 12, 2008

How can you tell when an advanced beginner is on the way to developing competence? How should your leadership style change to deal with this? This is the third post in a series of five covering Dreyfus and Dreyfus’s stages of adult development that I came across in Patricia Benner’s book From Novice to Expert. The stage after advanced beginner is competent. The five stages are:

Competent

Competence is where the performer begins to see his or her actions in terms of long-range goals or plans of which he or she is consciously aware. The plan dictates which attributes and aspects of the current and expected future situation are to be considered and which can be ignored. So, for a competent manager, a plan establishes a perspective and the plan is based on conscious, abstract, analytic contemplation of the problem. Competent performers become more and more involved in their work, compared to the detached rule-following behaviour of the beginner.

For example, I worked on a project with a person for whom every problem, issue or question that arose seemed equally important. This led to him spending time on things that were not important, and he worried a lot about things that were not significant in the scheme of things. When others asked questions, he was concerned if he did not know the answer, and this diverted him from the objectives we had agreed. As the mentor, I had to keep reminding him of the plan and asking him how the current problem fitted in with the plan, providing guidance on this frequently.

A competent performer lacks the fluency, speed and flexibility of a proficient one, but does gain a sense of mastery from the ability to plan the work, relating the various components to one another in a way that helps to achieve efficiency and organisation.

Implication for leaders: Help competent people to devise a plan or choose a perspective so that they can distinguish and decide for themselves what is more important and what can be ignored.

More in future posts…

This series of posts draws heavily on Benner’s book

From Novice to Expert

and Drefus and Dreyfus’s article

From Socrates to Expert Systems

The implications for leadership are my own. What are your thoughts?

Benner P. 1984. From Novice to Expert, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.